Technology

Field Test: Stage Tec Aurus

With a heritage that includes the groundbreaking Cantus and Cinetra digital mixing consoles, in 10 short years, Stage Tec has significantly influenced both the inward and outward design of digital de 10/01/2003 8:00 AM Eastern

With a heritage that includes the groundbreaking Cantus and Cinetra digital mixing consoles, in 10 short years, Stage Tec has significantly influenced both the inward and outward design of digital desks. The company's impressive client list — including ABC-TV in Los Angeles, 20th Century Fox, Skywalker Ranch, Warner Bros. Films and a host of similar European and worldwide users — bears ample testimony to this fact.

When I heard that Stage Tec had a brand-new console that needed to be scrutinized in Berlin, I jumped at the opportunity to be among the first to see what it had come up with this time. I wasn't disappointed.

BRAINS AND BEAUTY


The Aurus console is an extremely lightweight, yet large-framed console specifically designed for work in film, television or live sound mixing. It is the most sleek, 21st-century-looking digital audio console yet designed, and requires more than a second glance to confirm that the slim-line, ultrathin chassis can easily be lifted and transported by two people.

This wonderful, slim design is made possible by the use of the Nexus Star digital audio routing and interconnecting system found in Stage Tec's Cantus console. Nexus Star is the superfast “brain” of the Aurus, having all of the DSP cards located in a 19-inch rack. This can be located right next to the console or in a remote position as your needs require. (Even distances of up to 45 miles away can be accommodated.)

Where Nexus scores big over many other exterior rack-based network systems is that it doesn't need specialized cool-room environments or large, cumbersome multicore interconnectivity with the console. There isn't a fan to be found anywhere in the entire system (except inside the external computer running Linux Server, which is required only for storage). This means that the whole Aurus setup runs cool and quiet.

All communication between Nexus and Aurus is passed up and down the dual fiber-optical connector from the rack to the desk; there's no multicore, just the one optical conduit to connect. Upward of 1 Gbit/sec of information can be transferred between the desk and rack, which means that each and every parameter of the control surface can be rewritten in as little as 10 ms.

Housing all of the 24-bit routing capacity that you're ever likely to require, the Nexus Star audio router/network can carry up to 16 boards, each with 256 inputs and outputs. If you do the math, this adds up to a possible 4,096 input and 4,096 output sources at 48 kHz. The Star router and the Aurus console may also work at 96 kHz. The AES/EBU I/Os support sampling frequencies of 32 kHz up to 192 kHz. Included into this network is the console's DSP power, offering 40-bit, floating-point signal processing. By any standards, that is a huge amount of information to transfer around, but it's also the key to the success of the Aurus design. Everything that the control surface requires in terms of DSP functionality is controlled through the fiber conduit, hence the ability to design the console in a slim, lightweight form.

INTUITIVE DESIGN

Because all of the DSP functionality is carried out only on the Nexus Star, it's possible to open the fader modules on the desk during use and unplug an entire bay without the need to switch off or even halt the mix. You can even maintain this console without switching it off! When you do power-down, a hard reboot only takes 19 seconds, and then you're up and running again with your audio mix playing. In fact, the slowest element in the entire process is rebooting the external computer; used to store all the mixing data, it takes 37 seconds to boot.


Visually, Aurus is pleasing to look at. I hesitate to describe it “uncomplicated,” as the desk is complex in functionality. It has a striking simplicity that reminds me of the days when exploring new pieces of equipment was fun and something to look forward to. It took me only minutes to find my way around the desk; in a matter of an hour or so, I had it completely figured out.

Constructed to look much like an analog inline desk, the Aurus control surface has seven 15-inch color TFT flat screens, all configurable to user needs. A dedicated master control section, with a familiar Windows XP GUI, displays the matrix, routing and detailed parameter functions. It also serves as an interface for save and recall functions. Each channel strip has 100mm touch-sensitive moving faders with full automation capabilities. These modules come in groups of eight faders, and can be removed and placed anywhere within the frame of the control surface to suit the user's specific requirements.

The channel strips have 11 double-concentric, dual-function rotary encoders; they are touch-sensitive and control everything from input gain to dynamics parameters. Information is displayed on fan LEDs above the encoders or a series of alphanumeric character lines lower down. Like most modern consoles, these encoders are multifunctional and layered; thankfully, due to the sheer quantity of them, the number of these layers has been kept to a minimum. The top four encoders are primarily auxiliaries and the lower five are primarily for assigning dynamics parameters.

Up to 96 assignable channel strips and 300 audio channels (256 buses) are possible depending upon your configuration. Through this design compromise, all of the vital parameters and their indicators are accessible; the designers wisely chose not to clutter the surface with unnecessary function that might detract from performing the job.

Each channel parameter can be tweaked to detailed perfection in the master control section. And this is where the true mastery of the Nexus/optical connection is displayed: A graphic indication of the signal path is shown on the main display screen with each of the modules, I/O, pan, EQ, compressor, fader, etc., designated as a block. Nothing new there, you might say, and you'd be right. But because of the sheer speed of the information throughput, each block can be picked up in real time and moved anywhere in the signal path. For instance, you can place the fader before the insert point, place the mute before the compressor, and so on, and you instantly hear the result of your endeavors.

Virtually any setup can be created, though the signal flow is governed by some basic principles. Signal sources are fed into the respective Nexus boards. These are then routed to the mixing console channels via the input matrix, and then the console performs the parameter processing similarly to an analog console, with the signal routed to different buses or direct outputs. These bus signals can then be edited into various configurations before being fed back into the Nexus audio network via the output matrix.

What's more, you can save these configurations as you build them to the external computer that's used to drive the graphics on the display. This gives you virtually unlimited storage and recall of setups for mix situations or different working environments. Configurations can be saved or recalled differently for each channel strip, and then copied and pasted elsewhere within the console layout, building up a project as you go; it's that quick. You can even alter the signal path in real time using this method to A/B a channel or a group of channels, and hear the resulting effect.

FLEXIBLE MULTICHANNEL CAPABILITY

But there's more. All of the parameters of each channel strip are displayed either on the TFT screen immediately above the bay where the channel is situated or in detail in the central “master” section TFT display. Each display can then be totally customized to the user's methods of working, showing the name, filter settings, dynamics units or routing information if desired. A quick overview guide of the parameter settings are displayed in each channel; more detailed information can be obtained by selecting a channel and then viewing the enhanced detail in the main section display.


Naturally, Aurus is a true multichannel processing console, with multiple independent monitor paths supporting a wide variety of formats. This even includes three insert points for external cinema processors, as well as solo and mute functions for individual monitoring paths that are directly accessible via dedicated buttons. The solo bus is multichannel-enabled, allowing routing of up to eight monitor signals to the bus. Surround parameters can be accessed using a variety of controllers from the obligatory joystick, a discrete keypad (hidden below the armrest), jog wheel, tablet and pen.

CONCLUSION

The Aurus Fibre-channel network even allows for multiple monitor setups to be configured directly from the console itself' — no more cumbersome and ugly spaghetti-like masses hanging from the back of the console. Simply plug your monitors — near, mid or room — straight into the Fibre-channel system, and the monitoring buses take over from there. The master section allows user monitor setups to be programmed using several preprogrammed standard options, as well.


The Aurus is a truly adaptable digital audio console with just about every variable necessary (and, more importantly, includes those that are required). It is constructed around a simple user interface and control surface, with a lightweight, beautifully designed framework.

While it can be considered inherently dangerous to attempt to create a device that has the potential of matching all of the needs of so many different users, the Aurus really does seem to match up to Stage Tec's assertions. Stage Tec should be applauded not only for listening to end-users, but for also having the courage to build the product afterward. A lot of people will be genuinely surprised at this desk when they give it a closer look. Aurus is not only pleasing on the eye, but it gets the job done with minimum fuss, regardless of your needs or your work environment. And you don't come across that everyday.

Stage Tec, www.stagetec.com.

three views of the Stagetec Aurus





Robert Alexander is the former executive editor of Audio Media, a musician, audio engineer, writer, journalist and globe-hopping bon vivant.